Terrence Malick’s ‘Thin Red Line’ and Krzysztof Kieslowski’s ‘Dekalog’ Among Best New Arrivals at Knox County Public Library

In Movies & TV, Shelf Life by Chris Barrettleave a COMMENT

The Thin Red Line (1998)
Hollywood has long loved the A-list-roll-call war movie. A few are worth watching: Tora! Tora! Tora!, with its cast of elders, led by Martin Balsam and James Whitmore; and The Great Escape, with the hunky, smirking jawlines of Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, and James Coburn. The Monuments Men, made more recently, which limps along like a series of phoned-in cameos, demonstrates the risks directors run involving poor chemistry and inadequate vision. Even Bill Murray couldn’t save it.

Terrence Malick’s adaptation of James Jones’ autobiographical novel is that odd specimen of a great film belonging to a dubious genre. Malick didn’t just inspire Nick Nolte, Sean Penn, John Cusack, Jim Caviezel, John Travolta, Woody Harrelson, Adrien Brody, and others to work brilliantly together, he sparked career performances from some of them. Mel Gibson would cast Caviezel as Jesus in 2004, in The Passion of Christ. That may have been a result of the solemn dignity Caviezel brought to the ambivalent, occasionally AWOL, Christ figure Pvt. Witt in this film. As members of the second wave of American infantrymen sent to take Guadalcanal from the Japanese in 1942 begin to understand that they will most likely die during the conflict, Witt becomes the unit’s confessor and repository of regret. By the film’s end, even the dead seek his advice and share their own. Shot on location on Guadalcanal and Australia, this is a gorgeous film and an excellent testament in defense of Blu-ray technology.

Dekalog (1989/1990)
Also new to Blu-ray, these 10 shorts, each roughly an hour long, made up a miniseries on Polish television almost three decades ago. Even though HBO and Showtime had launched here during the 1970s, it’s nearly impossible to imagine any content this potent, grim, and finely wrought being broadcast in 20th-century America. The series is directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski, after he had given up documentaries (claiming that he was unworthy to film real tears and would instead film false tears) and had cast his spell upon the European festival circuit. Each episode is ostensibly based on one or more of the Ten Commandments. Don’t let that dissuade you—there is no proselytizing and, let’s face it, the same can be said for the best work of Robert Bresson or Frank Capra. These films and the vast catalog of human emotion they contain are frightfully real. You are apt to see the faces of these characters on strangers for the rest of your life. Kieslowski, who died in 1996, would spend the remainder of his career collaborating with his writer (and attorney) Krzysztof Piesiewicz and composer Zbigniew Preisner. Both colleagues served him well on this project, as they would on the culmination of their collaboration, the Three Colors trilogy, released in 1993 and 1994.

Tradition Is a Temple: The Modern Masters of New Orleans (2016)
This is a sweet documentary about the incredible resilience of New Orleans culture and music. While there are a couple Marsalis sightings, the story is mostly told by older local heroes and the next generation. Hurricane Katrina is referred to, but this community sees a greater threat from jaded youth and the commodification of New Orleans music. “People are putting it in their will that they want a jazz funeral!” fumes a band leader. “You don’t buy a jazz funeral. You earn a jazz funeral.” Live music is very well presented, bouncing from clubs to parades to shedding sessions and transgenerational tutorials. The Baby Boyz Brass Band, average age maybe 14, are on screen for just a few minutes. But you get to see them nail a new song, taking it from chaos to the sound of a bright and perfect future. The leader works his trumpet with one hand and a laptop with the other, while inventing body language cues to direct his mates.

George Crumb: Voice of the Whale (1976)
There is a formula for film profiles of music personalities. Filmmaker Robert Mugge does not subscribe. Crumb is a Pulitzer Prize-winning American composer. Though he remains prolific as a composer, he had dedicated himself to teaching up until 1997. His music is beautiful in unusual ways, and he often scores for traditional instruments to be played in nontraditional ways. In the film, Crumb shows Mugge how a pianist can reach into his instrument with a steel chisel and create a desired tremolo effect. Crumb’s West Virginia drawl is mesmerizing, and his lilting descriptions of his music and the sources of his inspiration are as soothing as his music is not. Whether or not you lean toward 20th century avant-garde, this great conversation on great music is well worth your time.

Shelf Life explores new and timely entries from the Knox County Public Library’s collection of movies and music.

Chris Barrett's Shelf Life alerts readers to new arrivals at the Lawson McGhee Library's stellar Sights and Sounds collection, along with recommendations and reminders of staples worthy of revisiting. He is a former Metro Pulse staff writer who’s now a senior assistant at the Knox County Public Library.

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